Quiet man Hill eager to hear noise of battle

Rugby World Cup: After missing four games, England's most flexible forward has recovered from a thigh injury in time to play in semi-final
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The Independent Online

Richard Hill is not, repeat not, a one-man team; if he were, England would have all the razzmatazz of a wet halibut. He does not crave attention, make love to the camera lens or trip the light fantastic. He can make 20 wrap-up tackles, hit 30 rucks, secure half a dozen turnovers and carry the ball several miles, all in the space of 80 minutes, yet amble through a small army of autograph hunters without reaching for a pen. Flabbergasted by a request for a television interview before flying to Australia last month, his excitement quickly evaporated. "They wanted to talk to me about Lawrence Dallaglio," he said, sadly.

All of which emphasises the fundamental absurdity of rugby's star culture, for, along with Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson, he holds the torch and carries the standard for this England team. Like Johnson, the Saracens flanker sees little point in talking a good game; unlike Johnson, he is not the captain and therefore does not have to talk about anything. He can get on with his job of work without bothering his head about the petty peripherals of life, which suits him down to the ground. If he is the least visible and least voluble of the world's élite forwards, he is no less accomplished for his lack of a public image.

And now, much to the relief of everyone associated with this faltering World Cup campaign, he is back between the shafts after more than a month of fitness problems that might have resulted in a less valued performer catching an early flight to Heathrow. "When the team chef starts cutting down the portions from 30 to 29, you start worrying," a smiling Hill said yesterday. "I'm delighted to be on tour once again."

Hill suffered a tear in his hamstring muscle - not a major tear, but a tear none the less - shortly after half-time in the opening pool match against Georgia 33 days and a thousand controversies, dramas and traumas ago. The problem, initially diagnosed as not much of a problem at all, cost him his place in the big set-to with South Africa - either a calamity or a nightmare, depending on which member of the back-room staff was talking at the time - and then threatened to rule him out of the entire tournament, which would have sent Clive Woodward, the coach, into hyperbolic orbit.

"Even now, I couldn't identify the precise moment it happened," Hill admitted. "I just remember feeling an unusual sensation in my leg. I wasn't particularly concerned, but I didn't want to push my luck because the scoreboard was looking pretty healthy from our point of view and there seemed no point in taking a risk. I hit a couple more rucks, we scored another try and I left the field, purely as a precautionary measure. I never imagined my recovery would take so long.

"I suppose there must have been some sort of setback during treatment, but I can't even pinpoint that for sure. I've been on week-by-week assessment all the way through, and I can't say there haven't been occasions when I feared things weren't going my way and thought a whole summer's preparation might be lost.

"It's been a difficult time, a frustrating time; while there was no suggestion of an ultimatum from Clive - the only thing I've received is reassurance - I couldn't help wondering how many lifelines would be thrown to me."

If Woodward was ever under pressure to send Hill home and replace him with a flanker who could do something more useful than pedal an exercise bike, he never felt remotely tempted to succumb. The coach has dropped Dallaglio and Neil Back, overlooked the talents of Jason Leonard and Ben Kay, even left Johnson to kick his heels on the bench. But he has never chosen to play a really serious match without his most flexible forward in one of the three back-row positions.

When Hill suffered a chronic back injury during the penultimate Five Nations' Championship in 1998, England's performance levels disappeared through the floor. Since missing the subsequent "tour of hell" - played seven, lost seven - he has been granted only an occasional breather, generally when Woodward has been faced by the might of Romania or opted, for varying reasons, to field a second-string side in Buenos Aires, Cardiff or Marseilles. In the coach's view, he is more nearly indispensable than any player of his generation.

During his watching brief, Hill has been as acute as anyone in assessing England's technical misfire at the breakdown - the single most disturbing aspect of their game, resulting in an ocean of lost possession and a stratospheric penalty count. Typically, he takes the "no problems, only solutions" approach. "It can be addressed," he shrugged. "When you come to a tournament of this magnitude, you know the International Rugby Board will order the referees to look hard at certain areas of the game, and that the tackle-ball is likely to be one of those areas. It's a question of getting up to speed with what's going on, of reacting to the circumstances as they unfold. At times, we haven't reacted well enough. That's it, in a nutshell.

"Quite honestly, I don't think it's beyond us to come up with an answer. If we were getting things massively wrong, we wouldn't still be in the tournament, would we? We need to be sharper - I think we would all acknowledge that - but when I look around me, I see the same players who won the Grand Slam, who came down here in June and beat both the All Blacks and the Wallabies, who performed exceptionally well in the run-up to this competition. What is more, we know the French as well as anyone."

The French know Hill, too, and would rather he was still injured. The Tricolore back row have been far and away the best unit of the tournament to date, but England have been denied a third of their optimum combination for all but the first 51 minutes of action. As Messrs Betsen, Magne and Harinordoquy would agree, it is now a different ball game.